Portrait of a Victorian Photographer

If Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden, hadn't really existed, someone would have had to invent her. Given the wild subjectivity of Carol Mavor's theory-poem on this 19th-century Englishwoman, maybe someone has. Scarcely known in her own time and an even more invisible figure now, Hawarden took up photography at the age of 37 and made close to 800 images while raising her eight children. She exhibited little, prefer- ring to work in private with her adolescent girls in the parlor of their well-appointed Victorian home. Moreover, the mother had a penchant for placing her daughters in suggestive poses, with silky fabrics tugged off the shoulder or hiked up at the knee, strands of hair falling down, and a calculated mirror effectively layering the teasing glimpses of her creations' youthful beauty.

Hawarden was an evident forerunner to Sally Mann, though the frankly sensual nature of her homemade pictures has been largely ignored—likely because, as Mavor suggests, daughter-on-daughter love proved discomfiting to certain viewers. These thoughts, and some other intelligent ones, are put forth in Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden, but getting to them is hard labor at best. There is so much that is richly suggestive in Hawarden's story, not least the fact that she died at the age of 42, leaving behind little in the way of diaries and letters, so that her persona has to be constructed from scarce period accounts and her work (in which, like Mann, she preferred not to appear). Sadly, this book tells us far more about Carol Mavor's moist desires, pet thinkers, and personal quirks than about Hawarden herself.

Danger signs are apparent before Mavor even arrives at Hawarden, in the gushy acknowledgments. "Although I must face the fact that I have really grown up now, I can happily say that my early experiences as a graduate student still stir me," she shares. Then Mavor is off, structuring her overblown musings with cute little headings and quotations, like "In Which the Story Pauses a Little." Actually, the story pauses a lot, mostly to give Mavor adequate time to tell us that as she's studying Hawarden's photographs she realizes she's "falling" for her subject ("She is my new magical person"), to note that "Significant is my stained but now highly collectible summer 1978 October," and to state, in a lengthy aside about her post–Wonder Years, "My adolescence, characterized by both an excess of time and a time of great loss, saddens me."

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Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden
By Carol Mavor Duke University Press, 213 pp., $19.95 paper
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When she manages to steer clear of the confessional, Mavor pursues some intriguing paths in attempting to elucidate Hawarden's photo graphs. She is smart on the topic of teendom (just one of the "becomings" of her title), and how it can surface not merely in the embrace of subject matter but in actual approach: adopting the unpredictability of adolescence can be an asset for adult photographers. Mavor also draws illuminating connections between the stereoscope and pornography, probes the nature of the family photo (though must she include her own?), and has a real flair for evoking and elucidating individual images, for helping us to envision the deep meaning she's admirably seeking.

Yet Mavor's analytic foibles far outweigh her strengths. Her connections of Hawarden's work to Mann's and Francesca Woodman's tend toward compare-and-contrast, with images often laid out side by side to provide obvious affinities. She also leans far too heavily on citation and has a penchant for desperate overreading. Struggling to make a connection between Hawarden's photograph of her namesake daughter wrapped in a curtain, her portrait of the family dog, comically stretched with front and rear paws poised on two chairs, and a similarly posed 19th-century photograph by Jean-Martin Charcot of a hysterical woman, Mavor muses: "Curtain-woman, dog-woman, chair-woman. A flash of vertigo. Home, sanitarium, or circus? The dramatic pose of Clementina, the poised body of the dog, and the shocking image of the hysteric are elliptic. Do you laugh or cry?"

Less far-fetched and more unnerving is Mavor's tendency to fall into erotic flights of fancy when it comes to describing Hawarden's girls. Obsessed as she is with Lewis Carroll's Alice, Mavor seems to have dissolved the looking glass altogether, with the picture planes of the photographs evaporating under the heat of her fantasy. Describing an image of the daughter Clementina posing as a milkmaid with her sister Florence, Mavor allows herself sentences like "Hand between Clementina's breasts, sensate Florence takes in all that she can. (Sensational.)" and "Through gently flaring nostrils, tickling tongue, and sweet, bacchant lips that I cannot see but feel in me/on me/through me, Florence begins to exhaust Clementina in me. My eyes are closed in imagination."

It's tough to say what's more annoying here: the lubriciousness, the grammar, or the pomo-ridden prose tics. Of course Mavor shouldn't be scolded for illuminating the homoerotic suggestions of Clementina's work, and her central question, posed in her preface, remains a solid (if re dun dantly phrased and unresolved) one: "What are we to do with the same-sex tenderness, longing, cross-dressing, caressing, sexuality, flirtation, longing [sic], voyeurism, and unveiling depicted?" If only Mavor had been able to step out of the hothouse and put her narcissism aside, Becomingmight have left us with a more satisfying answer.

 
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